Artist Presentation
Edgar Heap-of-Birds: Text: From the Personal to the Political



I put together a talk tonight that's going to focus, like your studies have been, on text. I work with it extensively, in other languages and native languages, but also in my own prose, in a sense. It's a very casual, diaristic approach to words. Also, I work with it in the public art, for which I am better known, and how that aligns with the meaning of the words and the premise of why the words are important. That follows into issues of image and ceremony, as well. I find that that relates a lot to my painting, in terms of titling. There will be important words that exist, from a ceremonial perspective that may not be a word. I think often we get captivated by the thought of words being a literal image, as in text, but there are also certainly a lot of spoken words that are important. There's that element in my work, as well. I want to go through the public art projects and the diaristic drawings. For me, it deals a lot with geography and particular sites. It's not just a word that I choose or that I relate to in my own little life. It's much broader. Some of the talk will go into Oklahoma, but also link with South America and Peru, then later to Australia. I've been working a lot in Australia, lately, collaborating with the artists there. Then we'll go back to America. There are sites, words and images that are very particular, so the talk will deal with that geography, as well; what you do when you find that place, what do you say about it. Often, the word is what comes forth out of the experience. The photograph is also a very important tool and way to communicate messages, so most of these photos that you'll see tonight were taken by me, as a way to document things when I'm working and traveling. That's another way of telling the story.

The first slide deals with home. It's western Oklahoma, on the Cheyenne reservation. It's a photo taken a few years ago, with the red earth and juniper trees that are there. It's kind of an ancient ocean, in a sense, that is now populated with people. It was the edge of the sea at one point, so there's a lot of red sand there that is a remnant of that sea. The ocean has become very important to me, so I like to mention that Oklahoma was once a beach. These trees are very important, from living on the reservation, which I did for about twelve years, and walking and hunting. I had some dogs and I actually hunted quail and rabbits. I had a garden, and ate from what was there. It was a matter of not really survival, but it was minimal survival, in a sense. I was out on the land every day, no matter if it was a hundred degrees or ten. I went out in the bush and related to what was there, so the trees became very important. You'll see later how that kind of plays into my painting.

When you look at words and text, you often get to politics pretty quick, in America, anyway. These are the principal chiefs of the Cheyenne Nation, in the 1870s, and then there are also the leaders of the warrior society of the same era. There were four main societies. The word for "four" is "neuf." This is a photograph after the Washita Massacre; they were rounded up and the tribe surrendered to Colonel Custer. At this time, they were taken as prisoners of war and put into prison in Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida. They were taken with their families and exiled, because they were leaders of their nation. That was before the land run and before the state of Oklahoma; it was still Indian Territory.

So this played a key role in my education and in my life: just learning about this incident and this kind of behavior on the part of the government of this nation. Rather than accept a truce, they took the leaders away from the people that they led, in order to make them subordinate. There was also a great indoctrination that occurred around the same time. Captain Pratt was their jailer, who was later awarded for his activities. They gave him a university to head. He became the president of Carlyle after he left Florida. The kind of indoctrination that he was involved with was a change, as he called it, from the Bad Indian into a White Man. He cut their hair and put them into a military uniform. Some of them actually died in prison, and some of them came back.

But to think about text–certainly all these warriors spoke Tsistsistas, or Cheyenne, in English. As they became captive, there was actually a list made of their names; of course, it was in English. I made a painting that I exhibited in the Community House Gallery, when it was in Midtown. It was called "Fort Marion Lizards." It became a pretty pivotal piece of work; it was very direct in how I created it. I found a list that Captain Pratt had written, himself, in Florida. I did research, as I do wherever I go, and I found it in the archives in Oklahoma. I just worked from his own handwriting. I started at the top of the list, where it said, "Heap o' Birds," "Bear Shield and Mahnimick," "Medicine Water," and so on. "Mahnimick" means "eagle head," and that was one exception, where it was still in Cheyenne language. When they were captured was when English came. That's when, say, "Muyamunahiscuss," which meant "magpie birds, many of them together," became "heap o' birds." That's when the domination came; language changed, and you had to deal with that reality. In this piece, I actually described the work as citing that the language captured the men as much as the army. From that day forward, to control English is one of your main duties, or how it controls you is the struggle.

Oddly enough, I was in Philadelphia going to grad school, and for about three years I was on the East Coast. My first public art was in Times Square, for a computer billboard. It was a pretty imposing type of opportunity. Myself, a sort of prophetic group going on in time, with David Hammons, Barbara Kruger, Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, all the upstarts who were working in the early 80s. It was the first time they gave anyone carte blanche at the computer billboard, which is where the big TV is now, at Times Square. I came to New York from Oklahoma, where I was living at the time. I was working at home by those trees, living on that canyon. Then I made this piece, called "In Our Language." Again, it deals directly with language and the politics of language. My first trip here, when I came to work on the piece, I made one of my paintings on the billboard; I did all sorts of fancy graphics, but I found that what I needed to do was let the Cheyenne people speak to the white people. This is a piece in our language. Each word comes down one at a time. This is 20 by 40 feet. It was about a fifty second message, and we later made a film, too, with interpretations. This goes into the description in the Cheyenne language of what the white man is. As you can see, "white man" still remains to this day "spider," in Cheyenne. Look at the actions of the white man on the reservation, the containment, the capture, even just the invention of the reservation itself, and the barbed wire fences. All those words that the Cheyenne made came way before the fences. They saw in the future that this relationship would be like living with spiders. It is also an interesting metaphor in that when a spider kills something, it wraps it up. My grandmother told me that the white men were thought to be very peculiar people when they came to Oklahoma, because they had so many layers of things on. There was underwear, outerwear, coats and hats and so on. They thought they were cocooned people.

So that was the message I put on the billboard. It ran for about three weeks. The message was actually made in Oklahoma, on about six pieces of paper, and then I came to New York and put it on the billboard.

So, again, the issues of politics and the power of language have always been prevalent in my work. This is a screen print, about six feet tall, called "Telling Many Magpies, Telling Black Wolf, Telling Hachivi." My name is Hachivi in my language, my great-grandfather was Black Wolf and his father was Many Magpies, who was in prison in Florida. I was looking at this lineage of racism in America, basically, and what kind of ideas that people are concerned about, related to native people. They're often about objects, buildings, streets and cities. A lot of it really isn't about native people who are living now; it's just about icons that have their names. Part of that blindness in America is institutionalized. You get it in your history books, all over in school, in literature and what not. There are so many tired European metaphors and schools of thought. I just came from Yale, which was suffocating. It's the same way; it's built on the premise that Europe is the center of the earth.

For me, as I criticize the dominant culture, you have to work to educate yourself, also. You can't just whine; you have to go forward and learn what you need to know. This is the Andes Mountains in Peru. I traveled there on my own, mainly to look at that kind of classical culture, in terms of urban centers and what not. I also went into the Amazon rain forests, up the Urubamba River to Machu Picchu, going out of Cuzco. It was an important journey to make. I also went to college in London, and went to the Vatican and traveled all over Europe as well. But there are other classical cities on this earth besides the Vatican. So it was good to go and look at the work that had been done in this native world. This man helped me; his name is Benny and he was from the nation there. The other important thing I found had a very important name in their language. Here, in their language, is the ‘Inti Watana.’ It's actually the mountain that's carved at Machu Picchu. It's not a rock brought to the mountain; it is the mountain. It's formed in this manner because of its name and its reference. It's there to utilize a concept, almost like a prayer, to take the sun and tie it down on the winter solstice. So when the sun is moving the farthest away from the earth, and things are the coldest, which brings death and scarcity of food, they would take a gold disk and tie it to the rock. The language is speaking about, if you have a llama and you want to tether it, ‘Watana’ would be to do that. ‘Inti’ is the sun, so it's ‘tie down the sun.’

I've been very involved, as you'll see in the talk tonight, with renewal sites, where the nation will renew itself and the earth. It was just thrilling to find ‘Intiwatana’ there. It was even more glorious than the Machu Picchu city, because it had this link with the stars, the sun and the earth. It made a big impression on me.

At the time, I was working on a large exhibition at the Wexner Center, in Ohio, and I had a solo exhibition at the University Museum at Berkeley. I took that kind of research that I was doing in South America, and decided to create four directions of the earth in the museum. We actually built a gallery in the four directions of the earth. The paintings were on the north end, facing South Dakota, in a way, which is important for the Cheyenne people. Those are the neuf series–four paintings were done, and they were exhibited four times, like offerings. On the far right is the east wall, and it's called Color and Sky: East. These are all pastels that I created after I returned. I was also in Mexico as well. It was great to be there. It was also part of what was informing me. This is the west wall, which is called, Boost West, about California. The south is called Peru South. If you look at the words at the top, ‘tie down sun,’ that goes back to Intiwatana. That was my premise on the language at this point, in the studio work, to give a fragment of an impression, and hopefully it would resonate with somebody. They would combine it with their life and make something else out of it. It's not really like a paragraph or a sentence, a totally didactic kind of experience. But that's what got me going, were the things that happened on the journey. This is about ten feet tall; they're 20 by 30 inches each.

After that, there was a big turn in my work. Some of it was accidental, and some of it was that the pastels had played out. I'd made about 150 of these drawings over about eight years or so. I had always preceded the pastels by making a list of words, in magic marker, of words that I was attracted to. This is a small page of 18 by 24 inches or so. It is just a remnant of a list; later, some of these became big drawings. I was involved in making these lists; I would circle one that I liked, like the ‘gun to pipe,’ or ‘all around you,’ and I'd make a drawing this big with pastels. I'd eventually make fifteen of them together and exhibit them.

So, two things happened. One thing was, though I enjoyed making the pastels, they had kind of played out. I'd done a lot of them. The other thing was that I had worked so hard on them, they took an aggressive stroke, that I tore a muscle in my arm making the drawings. I went to the doctor and had to get a brace, and I couldn't make the same stroke any more. They asked if I could make the stroke to the left, but that wouldn't work. It had to go to the right. Something had to change. I got a bigger studio space at that time, and I put up twenty of these lists. Eventually, I really got involved with all these magic marker drawings, and with the more immediate thought of the phrase, rather than the artification of it in pastel. Though I've still done that, anyway; but I try to be very immediate with it. I also got big paper. I got seven foot by twenty yard, beautiful rag paper. I would hang it up in the studio. The neuf paintings were about the same size as well. These are about 1994 or ‘95. I'd been in Australia working, and then I came back. Those marker drawings are what I'm working with now, and they came out of that experience of those lists.

They are kind of the diaristic approach of either making your own diary in your own notebook, or coming home and going to the studio and writing some words on the wall. Or painting those big paintings, and then having a thought and writing it. It's a real nice balance of a literal and an abstract thing, though I don't know if it's that polemic. If you're making an abstract painting, you can walk over and write a very direct phrase on the wall. Although it's coded, it's not in a real clear language.

This is called Want. This is called Young Look. I really got involved–I still am–with the structure, the scale of it. There's tiny letters and big letters. It's almost as if the paintings could talk, they'd say all these things. It's a similar structure to water or movement across the surface.

This is the newest one, called Monetish. It's about sexual intercourse, but because of the blurring, someone called it Monetish. It's a jittery, visual kind of thing happening. Also, it's evidently a hip thing to say that if something is ugly, if it looks real good from far away but up close it's not so good, it's Monetish. I don't know if that's slang now and we missed it all, but I like that. I like that word.

This goes back to the public art. There are all these kinds of strands running simultaneously; there's not a public art period, a drawing period, and so on. It's all running at the same time. This is in Pittsburgh, and it's a monument that the Daughters of the American Revolution put together in 1930. I did a public art piece with Mel Chin, Mierle Ukeles, and it was a great opportunity to work in Pittsburgh. It struck me that this monument has existed for over sixty years. If you look really closely, in the second paragraph, His victory determined the destiny of the great west, and established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States. That's a pretty biased statement, I would say. It was actually done to kind of slam the Eastern Europeans that were working in the mines and so on. The DAR people wanted to make sure that the Brits were the top of the ladder here, and everyone else was below. So I took exception to that, but I just took the words that the DAR had used–‘victory,’ ‘destiny,’ ‘Anglo-Saxon supremacy.’ The DAR owns about twenty feet of the state park. They have a little thing in the ground telling you when you enter their turf. I made about twenty-four signs that recounted their language. But I added three words, ‘who owns history.’ I made it red, white and blue. It caused an incredible stir, almost a riot, when these words actually became a sign. People hadn't read the DAR thing, so it kind of drew attention to that. It hasn't really changed the monument; it still sits there, as a proclamation. School kids come there on field trips, and they go to the monument–OK, there's the truth, that's the monument. It shows you the bias that exists out there. People actually tore these signs in half and shredded the metal, so I guess it was a pretty effective piece, in that way.

I've also done a lot of work that commemorates or honors nations. It's critical of the dominant culture, but it's made to honor the native people. I've done a lot of panels around the country. The first one was done here in New York City in '88, at City Hall Park. We did twelve of these panels. Oddly enough, it also caused a lot of controversy, believe it or not, in New York City. Mayor Koch actually censored six of them. He said it was too many Indian tribes to have around his office. He got very nervous about having all these nations. We had twelve; we were just saying, Today your host is Oneida; today your host is Mohawk, Tuscarora, etc. We were only allowed to put six up in this town.

I've also been working on the Northwest coast a lot. I have a permanent piece in downtown Seattle, called Day/Night. It was one of the first pieces I did in porcelain. It's porcelain enamel on steel, and it combines a bit of the drawing and some of the printmaking and painting together. It's a beautiful, ancient technology. The statue existed of Chief Seattle–his real name is Sealf, actually–in the center, and then the two panels are my contribution, translated into his language, which is Seacth and Unshootseed. There was an elder who could translate my prose into his language. It's a great technology; it's porcelain on steel, cooked in a great furnace. You can also do screen printing with enamel ink, and cook it again, so the enamel, the steel and the porcelain fuse together. Right now, I'm working on a major commission for the Denver Art Museum, where there will be twelve of these ten foot tall standing forms in a circular, medicine wheel type pattern, using the same technology. By the way, all the signs in the subway are made by a company in Dallas that uses the same technology.

So, we used the language of Chief Seattle, and here is the translation. Now the streets are our home, with the dollar signs and crosses swimming around the words. On the left, Faraway brothers and sisters, we still remember you. The park is called Pioneer Square, and it's actually a very interesting crossroads, literally, of indigenous people that live there, that are homeless, that might be drinking a bottle of wine and hanging out all day. You've also got some totem poles that were stolen from Vancouver that are up in the same park. Then you've got all the tourists coming to take the Underground Seattle Tour. There's a ticket booth right there. So it's a big crossroads of what Seattle thinks it is, what it doesn't want to be, and all that. I chose that site. I made that piece, in some ways, primarily for the native people that are on the street. Here are two gentlemen who are watching over it for me. They do a good job. It had a good life up there. I actually put sage on top of it that I renew when I go to Seattle. It had an intent to be somewhat ceremonial, although I avoid that most of the time. But this piece was for the people, I guess.

This is a piece that was out in California, in San Jose. This is a good time to talk a little bit about the issue of private and public art, and studio art that could be somewhat private, but then when you go out into the street, you're open to interpretation. The people complete your work by what's on the street. I had an exhibit of studio work in the museum in San Jose, but we had to address where the museum was, also. That's when I did research about California and the missions. We made a bus piece. This was put on twenty-four buses that drove around for about two months. It was just talking about what the Church brought to the native people, which was syphilis, smallpox and forced baptisms. This one became very hot, as well. The Catholic Church really freaked out when this happened. They actually censored the piece, but the power of the community got the work back out on the buses. I was pretty supported by the bus company and everybody else. It was really great. It also started a discourse, which is the mission of public art. It's not that it's too compelling; it's not going to change everyone's mind. But I think what it does do is start the discourse about the subject, and then everyone else has to settle that their own way. Missions, before this piece was happening, were just taken for granted as these wonderful institutions. Now we have to look at it in a different way.

This piece was in Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center. I had a major show at the Walker, a sort of retrospective. There, again, it was necessary to look at the history of Minnesota. These are forty panels, and the text here says, December 26, 1868, Mamkato, Minnesota. Death by hanging, execution order issued by President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. So Abraham Lincoln wrote death warrants for thirty-eight Dakota warriors during the Civil War. He had them hung all together on one gallows, in Mankato, Minnesota. (In response to inaudible comment:) Yes, there were supposed to be 300 of them. It was the largest mass execution in America's history, which Lincoln initiated during the Civil War. I made a panel for every warrior. Then I worked with some kids from local junior highs. They were native youth, and they were also related to the warriors. There are a lot of people still living there. It's a complex topic, but includes the politics of wheat, farmland and moving people. Dakota people, as you might know, are known to be in South Dakota. That's what you think of, but these people were from there as well. Because of this incidence and other political situations, they were moved out of there. I used forty pounds of Pillsbury flour to make this arc. The mill was just up the river a bit. I also chose the river because the warriors were ceremonial people. They'd go through the same ceremony that I do, as a Cheyenne people, which was to go without water for a period of time. Water becomes a very important renewable, or honoring, source, to you. I put them on the water. Right now, I've been in Minneapolis off and on. I'm going back up for a public art project with a couple of other artists. We're picking a site right next to the Gold Metal Mills, for this piece to go back up. It's been down for over six years. It's hard to get the work to stay, as it's provocative to certain people.

This is Cleveland, as you can see. It's the same situation of having an art show in the gallery and then looking at what to do in terms of commenting on the location of the place. Here's the billboard. There, again, it became very sensitive to the baseball team and the city of Cleveland. They thought this was a fine, honoring symbol for somebody. They keep talking about that. My premise was that it's certainly a very insensitive, gross symbol, but they tried to present it as though it was an honoring symbol for native people, therefore it's ours. They've given it to us; so I did what I wanted with it. I figured, if it was mine, then I could. But then they said, You're tearing up our logo. That's illegal to take our logo." I said, "I thought it was mine. I thought you gave it to me to honor us. They said, No, no. It's an infringement of copyright, and on and on. But I think it's worked out pretty well. It was banned for a little while; then we went to the press and it became a big story in Cleveland. Eventually we got money donated to make three billboards, instead of one. It became sort of a rallying cry for local native groups, and I turned it over to them. They made bumper stickers, T-shirts, and all kinds of things. Again, it's important just to kind of voice the issue, talk about it in the press, in the communities, and so on. It's called American Leagues.

This is one of the newer ones. This was the Public Art Biennial, at the Neuberger Museum, in Purchase, New York. I did some work with Dennis Adams at the show, and he said he got lost at the museum. This is right on campus. It just talks again about the word, ‘purchase,’ and what that means as far as native territory and people's habits and history. Eventually it's taken for granted that, yeah, it was purchased, but I don't think you can say that about all the territory.

I did this work in a shopping mall. It's called Maxed Out Yet? I like this a lot. We show work, we won't say what you spend. The shopping mall was in bad trouble, economically, so they gave us storefronts because they couldn't rent them out. We put up stuff about shopping too much. Then we got a grant from the people and made shopping bags that said this that you bought when you came shopping. I can implicate myself; my credit cards are all maxed out, too. Everyone spends too much money. I really like the context of where text goes and I try to address that as well, even if it's about business.

This is a piece that was up in Wadsworth Athenaeum, in Hartford. It just came down a few months ago. They finally had enough of it, I guess. It was too troubling, I'm sure, to them as well. This is called Dunning the Ground. It's Nathan Hale in the center. He was a spy for Washington, as you know, and was caught by the British and then executed. He became this hero for America. That's sort of a given, on the territory of the museum. But then I sort of backed up a bit, and looked at the Pequot Nation, and that's the major nation of the area, in terms of historical references. This is by Captain John Mason, of the Connecticut colony militia. He wrote a really amazing book in 1637, in which he bragged about how it was wonderful to murder all these Pequot people. What he did was actually came and attacked the nation in the middle of the night. They went by in boats along the Mystic seaport area, and then the tribe actually celebrated that evening because the boats went past them. But the boats doubled back around, split into two forces and attacked them in the middle of the night. They burned the village and killed whoever came out. Eventually, what happened was that some of the survivors got sold into slavery in Jamaica. Captain Mason got title to their land. Mystic and all the area down there is on the massacre site. These are his words, This was God crushing his proud enemies, burning them up in fire, Dunning the Ground with their flesh. It is marvelous in our eyes. His colleague was Captain John Underwood, from the Massachusetts Bay colony militia. He also wrote a book, and in his book, he wrote, Many were burned, men, women and children. Others were forced out, which our soldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword. I took those words, with the Old English font, and the crown. It was all British energy, at that time; there was no America. Then the dagger cross, and put it all together alongside one of the American heroes of the colonial era. This went up, and it had trouble staying. One day I was going to the airport and I swung by there, and it was just gone. I don't know what happened; I hate to even ask. They haven't told me a word about it, yet. This was billed as America's oldest art museum, also.

These are words that I took to Australia. I've been collaborating with Aboriginal artists. We actually had an exhibit, which I'm going to talk about now, at that museum, where that work is, at the Wadsworth. There were sixteen phrases, which I call "Sixteen Songs," that were taken out of my own personal history of life in the Cheyenne Nation and my own ceremonial training. They were taken to Australia and written separately, one page for one word. In the ceremony that I'm alluding to, there are sixteen main songs, sung in sets of four, so that was very important to me. The ‘neuf,’ again, the four. The phrases are ‘sky,’ ‘earth,’ ‘offering,’ ‘patience,’ ‘tree,’ ‘strength,’ ‘see new growth,’ ‘green for awareness,’ ‘resistance,’ ‘solstice for everyone,’ ‘dance,’ and ‘water.’ This became a point to interpret renewal, the sixteen words. The Aboriginal artists in Adelaide, Sydney and New South Wales, Australia, took the words and made new artwork out of the context, about renewal. Then I gave them my artwork and they gave me theirs; we made an exhibit called Sixteen Songs, that toured America for about four years. At every venue, we made public art. The Wadsworth piece was a public art piece about the massacre of the Pequot Nation. This was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We made four different bus benches that had the different phrases on them.

The project started in Dallas-Fort Worth. We made billboards along the interstate highway, as well. We also did these kinds of panels on every subway car in St. Louis. Some of the artists got to come over to collaborate on further work in St. Louis. This is one of the paintings that were done from the phrases. ‘New growth’ was the phrase that was utilized here. This is a work by Gordon Hooky, who was an artist from Queensland, but he lives in Sydney. There were fires also in Sydney, about two years before, and it almost burned the city down. Gordon wanted to make some work that had two different missions. One was to talk about how fires do renew things, in a natural way; and also to talk about how Sydney was perhaps too close to the woods, the parks, and so on. But the third, maybe more important, part, was that black people were setting the fires. I think he wanted to burn Sydney down, basically, and start fresh.

I had a residency in Australia that was Lila Wallace Fellowship for International Research. I traveled to the center of the continent, called ‘Yluru’ right next to Ayers Rock, in English. I lived a bit on the other side of this rock with the tribal community, in a place called Mutijulu. This is the place they come to renew themselves; there are caves, and fasting places. Amid all the tourism are also places that are off-limits to tourists. It was a great site; I have a lot of strong feelings about Yluru. That was part of my research, to go there and then come into the cities and make this new work with the sixteen phrases.

A big part of what I find in Australia relates to renewal, and it comes out of the Great Barrier Reef. The fish, the coral and that kind of wilderness under the sea are really important to me. I gravitate toward it all over the world. I always go snorkeling on the reef, whether in Australia, Hawaii, or the Caribbean. It kind of relates back to that tree on the prairie, and the ancient beach I talked about, earlier. It's a matter of exercising these ideas of renewal, not just keeping them symbolic, but actually going and finding the places that feed you that way. The color and movements of the fish and being buoyant in the water are very fulfilling. The color is amazing; it's better in the water than it is in the air. These forms have come to inform the neuf series; these are about 7 by nine 9 or so. They're always done four at a time, at each studio session. This can take nine months or a year. All the colors are basically contrasting. It's a visual image, certainly, but it's also an animal or human being type of metaphor for diversity, yet having a cohesiveness about it.

I've been working in Maine lately, on Acadia Island, out of this barn. It's kind of like that prairie and being in the country. As you probably know, Maine's a very remote place, but you also have the water very close. It's been really good for my painting to be up there working. These paintings are going to be shown in Santa Fe. They're acrylic on canvas, about six feet or so.

This is from the most recent trip back to Australia. It's an older power station that's not in use any more, in western Sydney. It's called the Casula Power House. Now they've turned it over to arts people, so they had a wonderful festival leading up to the Olympics. It had all the arts–dance, music, painting, drama–and it took over the whole city of Sydney for about a month. They invited artists to come and collaborate there. I'd been there before, many times, but I was really gratified that they asked me to come back. We lived in these little trailers; it was very posh accommodations, as you can see. We lived together for about a month, did work together, and just kind of got to know each other. I finished this piece; this is the center of an atrium. It's about five stories tall and who knows how long. It's an incredible room. Some of the artists made pieces for the floor. I came with these words. I worked with a billboard company, which was great; we actually got the materials donated. They're all about one meter tall. It's just a simple message–three Cheyenne words and one English word. ‘True,’ in a colloquial way in Australia, is like ‘really.’ It's kind of a positive slang, in a way. The piece says, ‘Henneg Knoahshev Peavant,’ ‘true, learned, shared, good, true.’ That was my offering, my presentation, about the whole festival. We came to learn, to share, and to make good and true things, in a sense. I think that's what we want to do, from my perspective, with all the artwork that we make. We come to make an offering; we don't come to make a living, or make money. You come to give something and to learn something. That's the spirit in which we try to continue our work as artists.

Does anybody have questions or comments?

Audience: I appreciate the use of the Indian language in the public art, because I think that using the indigenous language is the way to claim your own culture and subjectivity, etc. I wonder if you have used the Indian language in your studio art, like the text pieces you did in '92 and '93.

Heap of Birds: You mean the pastel pieces? Probably not as much. Here and there, a little bit, but I guess that's one of the differences in the personal and the political. There is a real strong premise of reclamation in public art and in your public persona. But in a private way, like tribalism, where I come from, is very much just part of your life. It's in English a lot of the time, but you can actually live your tribal existence without having to proclaim it, so much. But when you go out in New York or San Jose, it's not quite as accessible, so it's more important to make those proclamations.

Audience: When you get commissioned for a piece, similar to the one you did at the Wadsworth, to some it's controversial, so do you just have an open agreement with them that it's up for x amount of days, or until they deem fit? You went there and you were surprised it was gone. How does that work with you? Is there some sort of time agreement?

Heap of Birds: Well, there's always a time limit. I had already exceeded it. I just never take it out of the ground. I did up in Minnesota; that was my first mistake. We were good; we had a certain amount of time. We could never get it back. They said it was out of there for good; we could never renew the contract. Actually, in Seattle, that piece was also supposed to be gotten out. Then the mayor got booted out of the office and there was a new art commissioner, and he didn't like it either. But eventually the city bought it, and they honored me in a little ceremony. Before, they were ready to get it out of there. You just don't ever want to take it out of the ground, when you make something. You may luck out and it may withstand the winds of change. My piece in Denver is a major, permanent work. The whole museum has done this fundraising. It's the first time that there will be a very substantial effort. I wonder about the monuments that are there, like the Nathan Hale. That's the big question to ask ourselves as artists. We're usually poor, and we're sort of provocative, so no one's going to give us a bronze, because that would be overtly permanent. We end up being cheapskates and we get to do sort of backfire kind of things, rear guard kind of art. The question to ask yourself is if you made this wonderful, provocative piece of art today, in twenty years would some young artist be putting signs next to it saying, Look at this goofy thing here. I think we've been conditioned to think that since we don't have any money, we're going to be provocative. But if you have money, they might make fun of you in fifty years. You have to try to make a concept that's really going to last. The Denver thing is like a medicine wheel thing, an infinite kind of historical thing. I've been trying to work that out so I'm not poked fun at in twenty years.

Audience: I wanted to ask you to elaborate a little on your neuf paintings. You've mentioned that they can be seen as a metaphor for diversity, with their different colors. In an experience where a lot of people are multi-ethnic and multi-racial, and considering that culture isn't really static, I was just wondering if you could elaborate on why you made the edges of the colors discrete.

Heap of Birds: Well, first they come from a visual point of view. I've always worked in kind of a figure-ground relationship, visually. You have to contrast to make it stand out as discrete or distinct. My process is really built on that premise, in a technical way. I do, on a tribal way, see things a certain way. From my perspective, if you look at tribes, there isn't a "native America" at all. That's a weird premise that doesn't exist. There's Pueblo people, there's Ponca people, Cheyenne people, and so on. They're not mixable; but they have respect for the differences and they honor each other in all kinds of ways. I see that as being a positive way of respecting, having isolated differences, yet they could all dance together.

Audience: I was wondering in relation to the Fort Pitt DAR monument, if you think that should be removed. In some ways, the fact that it still remains allows it to be a testament to a particular historical moment, in which that idea was allowed to be monumentalized. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that.

Heap of Birds: One of my students up at Yale told me that when this Bosnia thing happened–correct me on this if I'm wrong–Clinton said, We're a European nation, and that's why we're over there. He didn't ask me about that; I don't know if he's asked you about that. It doesn't seem like it's changed that much from 1930. Suddenly, we're a European nation. And here it is, there are more people of color than Europeans in America. That bias is still carrying the day, it seems to me. It does point out the bias very clearly. But there's no one there to translate it. A good thing to do would be to have something reply to it, like if those panels were allowed to be still in the park. Or they could commission someone to make a statement that wasn't quite so biased. I think people just take it for granted.

Audience: I was interested in your magic marker murals. I find them whimsical and beautiful. The titles, even before you say them, are the most obvious word that's up there. I was wondering if you preconceive what you're going to write on them, or if it's just a spur of the moment kind of thought.

Heap of Birds: Usually it starts with one big word, that I might have in my own little sketchbook or diary for a few weeks. Then I start building the other stuff around it. I start with one thing that is preconceived, but most of it just grows over time. I don't know if they're ever really done. It's like a diary; when is your diary done? I see it, and I appreciate it, but I'm making a new one now. There has to be enough saturation and history built into the piece when I'm ready to send it on its way. I'll never work on it again. I'm always working on something new. I'm pretty casual with them. You can see the paper is torn on the side and it's all crumpled up. The museums don't like that, but it's a casual record. I think that's how I see the drawings, is as a record of an activity. Paintings are that way, too. People who paint know that. It is just a document of the time you were in that room, basically. Every now and then, you walk out and drag the painting out with you, and people look at it. A lot of the work is just intuitive and builds over time.

Audience: To return to your public art pieces, when you're writing your proposals, do you tell the cities what is going to be on your plaques and so on?

Heap of Birds: Um, no. In Denver, I gave them the premise of what it was going to be about. But I didn't give them a drawing or anything that showed what it was.

Audience: Do they ever try to revoke the contract?

Heap of Birds: No, not so much, but I've lost some major commissions lately, over political arguments. There's a lot of resistance out there. I've been pretty fortunate over the last ten years. We've never not made something, anywhere in the world. But lately I've gotten kind of stopped. I don't know if it's because there's more private money or business people involved. Things are changing. For my career, there's more resistance today. I had a big piece in Seattle that they stopped cold. Even the liberal artists said no. It was in different languages, but it was articulating issues of Seattle, from my perspective. I was using European languages. But to tell the story of Seattle in Yiddish, German and Finnish, and to speak about what had transpired in their languages and not talk about myself so much, was unallowable. Yet, for them to have a football helmet with this mythical bird they invented was not insensitive. They can talk about the native people but the natives couldn't talk about the white people. That was clear in the commission. That's very troubling, but that's the way that runs.

Audience: You said you've encountered a lot of opposition and resistance to your public artwork. You also said that part of the goal was to open up dialogue by making the pieces. In addition to the resistance, have you gotten any positive feedback, or have you found that it started some useful dialogues?

Heap of Birds: Yes, there's been a lot of support, too. Like the piece in Cleveland–when we put it in the paper, and everyone heard that the Cleveland Art Institute was stopping the billboards, people sent checks to me through the mail. They said, "Here's more money to make them." We made more of them than we did before. I'm direct enough to tell you that the success is a provocative incident. It was actually in Baseball Weekly magazine. All the jocks had to see that image. It was a really funny article. That would never happen if they hadn't tried to stop me from making the billboard. Having the media transmit the information is really useful. That's all part of the premise. But I don't make them, thinking, What will get them pissed off? when I'm in my studio. I just make the thing. I was having breakfast uptown, and I stopped at a mailbox and wrote …for racism. I had seen someone's hat and it got me going again. Wherever it happens to be, it always carries forth to be that. I also wanted to say that if I don't have a strong feeling for something, like in a public art commission, I just skip it. I try to have strong feelings for what I make.

Audience: I had two things to say, one of which is just a comment and not really a question. I feel like we've been in here all day talking about text and image being combined together. You said at one point that if the paintings could talk, they would say all these things. I'm really interested in the fact that you have your paintings on one side and your writing somewhere else. It seems to lend the single written word a lot more power. I wanted to ask about your connection to text. The second question is that I've tried to use Yiddish to title my work, and I've found it to be a big problem. People don't know what it is or that it's even a language. They think that I've made up something on my own. I wonder if you've ever been in a community where that's a problem, to use the Indian language.

Heap of Birds: They don't understand it, you mean?

Audience: They don't even know that it's a language. They just think that I'm making words up or putting vowels together. I was in the Midwest when this happened, which could have been why.

Heap of Birds: It depends on what you want to communicate with the title. Words that are from another language can be like a work in themselves, with an English title to tell them what that was. I guess it depends on what you want the title to serve.

Audience: I think it depends on what kind of audience it's geared towards. If you are making this piece for Yiddish people, that won't happen. If you say you're doing this Yiddish thing and you expect Chinese people to understand, you have to expect that. It depends on your audience. Also, I think that sometimes, like if I'm talking to a group of Americans and there's another Chinese person around, it's not that we want to ignore the Americans, but we might say, Excuse me, can we speak our own language? Then we start speaking our own language, and therefore become powerful, as a group. We don't, then, have an isolated existence in American society. So, when you use that, it's a very powerful thing. I would totally disregard people saying you have made up the words, because it's just their ignorance.

Heap of Birds: I think what's interesting with that, too, is that you can articulate issues of difference. I've done that a lot. It might confound people, but you have to just demonstrate that this is a different thing. It doesn't need to explain itself. People will be confounded, but then maybe they will want to know.

Audience: The more frustrating part was that, after explaining why I was using it, that it had a lot of reasons behind it, I was told that, instead, I should go and use Greek or Latin. It couldn't be farther from Yiddish.

Audience: I think that sometimes when you do a thing like that you can give a sense of what it feels like not knowing. Sometimes when I accidentally use things that not everyone knows, people get the feeling of what it's like not knowing. Also, I thought about, because I use photography as a medium, when I show a mountain, it's already talking about this specific mountain, and then it's so hard to talk about ‘mountain.’ I think it's powerful sometimes to use text without image, to evoke the image of a mountain without showing the image itself. I was wondering if that's why you don't really use the photographic image in your public art.

Heap of Birds: I think you have to wonder about things in order to know about it. If you're too explicit, people just turn the page and go to have lunch. They don't really dig to find anything. I think you have to hit that edge, where it, just visually, makes you wonder, What's that? Should I look at that? and then investigate what that means. That's why a lot of the work isn't very explicit. In response to another question, I did some early work with text and image together, and then it sort of split apart, because it was about a political, didactic thought process. Everyone kept wanting me to put it back together again. They thought it would be easier for them if it was together, but that's why it's not. You have to come and mix it. I like to keep them separated. It's hard for museums and galleries, because they have to choose what to make the card for and what to put in the magazine. It's hard to buy; you have to buy two things. It kills the work in a financial way, but that's my demand that it stay separate.

Audience: I had a question that goes back to what you were saying about the times changing and finding it hard to get funding, possibly because of business. I've heard a lot of talk lately about the coal industry taking over land in Wyoming. I wonder if you could talk about industries involved with reservation land. I'm interested in industry and its effect on land and home place.

Heap of Birds: I'm not really that involved with that part of history. If I go to a place, I'll go find it, but I'm not versed in those land issues. I know from my own experience that it's hard to come back to the farm. Farming is under fire. A lot of my friends on the reservation area are Anglo farmers, and there's been this corporate farming. They make roads that go along the edge of the land. The youth certainly aren't as enchanted with farming as their grandfathers or grandmothers were, so it's easy for people to come back and take over those family places. It's a very nice way of life. It's hard, but it's very environmental to be a farmer. That's a little bit troubling to see that happen.

Audience: I thought the juxtaposition of the format of your text and the text itself was very interesting and ironic in your Walker Art Center piece. When you think of westward expansion, the country getting taken over and the landscape almost ruined, highways are such a contribution to that. I thought it was ironic that a lot of your pieces take the format of highway signs and billboards.

Heap of Birds: Yes, even some of the ideas I have take place on the highway, when I'm driving it. I'm moving across land. The piece in New York, Stolen/Reclaimed, I wrote on the way to Amarillo. It was in the middle of the night and I was trying to find my way through a snowstorm. I was watching these green signs intently. I was getting sleepy, so I was hanging on by those signs. My design team actually found that highway gothic font. It's a computer font, and I found the green reflective stuff that all highway signs are made out of. I made that piece, and it passes for an interstate sign. All that capitalistic, westward expansion stuff is a kind of a reference. But I live in Oklahoma, so I drive all the time. I would drive 120 miles every two or three days. It's not only just a political judgment; it's my reality of being on the road, as well. The sign pieces sort of fit my sensibility of not being terribly politically polemic or angry in my demeanor, but always wanting to go on record, as to here is what I do think. The sign methodology seemed to suit my own psyche. I won't stand there and argue with you about it, but I will probably deliver it to your doorstep, and it will be up there for a while. I'd prefer to let someone else hash it out. I'm also really fascinated by how gullible we are, to believe the propaganda. Any propaganda, we buy it in a second. Whatever you have in print, people believe it very readily. When you're being subversive, that's the best arena to use, because everyone believes it.

Audience: What are your views on a more destructive form of art? For instance, if you saw a Cleveland Indians banner somewhere, would you agree with writing on it or maybe setting the Fort Pitt monument on fire?

Heap of Birds: I wouldn't mind inciting that kind of behavior.

Audience: Do you find that to be art?

Heap of Birds: I don't know. It would be an expression. I don't know if it matters if it's art or not. I think people should express themselves however they care to. People usually wonder about if it's art when they don't want you to do it. My students are always doing that. They say, That's not art, because they're scared of it. If it doesn't bother you, I would go ahead and do it, I think. In that Fort Pitt thing, they tore all my signs apart. I don't know if that was art, but they made it pretty clear. They were confused; they thought I was a white supremacist. They thought I had made the DAR thing. I do think that in public art, that's part of the whole equation is the public's response. I never want to wash off the graffiti; I exhibit the signs torn in half. That's somebody else's response to me, and I accept that. But I think people should make any kind of action they like. That's a part of it–public action.

Audience: I'm just going to make a comment. I like both of the things that you do, the public art and the studio art. I think that in the public art there are times you're being subversive and also honoring the people. But I think your painting is really beautiful, because that's where you remember who you are and where you're coming from, and how beautiful your surroundings are.

Heap of Birds: Thanks. I think that's really important, and something to consider. Going back to European models, there's a model that says you have to make this monolithic art practice. You can see it all over town. Pick up any listing and you'll see this push to make it this one image. I think we're all multidimensional people; we all have different roles that we play in society, in terms of responsibilities and so on. But the European model will demand that you be one thing. That's so biased and limited. Jimmy Durham said something about how we all should be the conscience of America, the people on the street and the hot dog vendor should be expected to have views on this government. When we get so monolithic, suddenly we're the conscience, we're the spiritual leaders, and then the guy who sweeps up in here is nothing, he doesn't matter at all. He doesn't have any idea, because no one demands that he have one. If we can all diversify our roles, it's much more productive. That goes back to a tribal society. In my own case, I'll be working in about three weeks as a leader of a ceremonial activity. I'll be mentoring a young man and his life will be in my hands. He'll have no water and food for three days, and I'll have to make sure he lives through those days. His father and mother will be watching very closely while I have him there. That will be my job. But that doesn't mean I'm not a painter, a father, a professor. You can't just say you're one thing. Your life has to have these dimensions, so why shouldn't your art? It's a new model to have one solitary job. It never was like that.

Audience: That sort of takes care of my question. I was going to ask you to go back to the question of language. I was thinking about the issue of translation and how the meaning gets lost when you translate something into another language. I wasn't sure whether English was your first language or not. The second thing is, in a larger sense, some people say the artist's role is mainly that of a translator. In the old days, a wise person who knows more about spirits or the other side would translate to other people. Do you consider yourself, in that regard, at least partially in a role of translator?

Heap of Birds: Yeah, I think so. But there, again, that kind of follows the European model of the "conscience," that the artist is going to reflect our culture and no one else is going to. I do handle that, I guess, in a lot of ways. My art practice chooses to do that.



Synopsis by Bennie Flores Ansell



Research- learn that word, it is a good word, it means making art.

Edgar Heap of Birds is a Native American Indian artist, from the Cheyenne tribe. Delineated in this lecture were the historical and geographical significance of his public art. The issue of language and the politics of power is prevalent in his work. He began the lecture discussing the power of the Colonial English and their language. This introduction laid the groundwork for the audience to review the capture of the Native American Indian in ways of physical capture as well as communicative capture. To control English is one of the main duties or see how it controls you.

The various projects discussed were in the following places: Seattle, Washington; Peru; The Wexner Center, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; New York City; San Jose, California; The Walker Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Connecticut; Cleveland, Ohio; Purchase, New York; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Australia.

Particular images and words are chosen in a dialogue with the particular site of its history/truth. His Pittsburgh project, in which he collaborated with artists Mel Chin and Mierle Ukeles illustrates this idea. In Pittsburgh, a ‘Daughters of the American Revolution’ memorial erected in 1930. The sixty year old monument states His victory determined the destiny of the great west and established Anglo-Saxon Supremacy in the United States. This biased statement was made to slam the Eastern Europeans working in the mines, and to make sure that the British were on top. So together they made twenty-four signs with various texts asking the question ‘Who owns History?’.

A strategy used by Heap of Birds is the inversion of text. This use of the inverted text asks the viewer to turn their thoughts around, look back at the history, re-look and see it for what it was and is, do not accept it as the truth.

Heap of Birds also expressed his ideas on private art and public art. The raised awareness of public art and its difficulty with various groups makes it a hard proposition to keep permanent. The difference of these two forms of art were addressed while doing a show in San Jose, California. His public art piece addressed what the Catholic missions had done to the Native American Indians in Northern California. He placed posters on buses that caused some controversy with the Catholic church that were rescinded and then reinstated. He expressed with this piece The mission of public art, not that it is always too compelling, or that it is going to change everyone’s mind, but it starts the discourse about the subjects.

The same problem arose for Heap of Birds in Cleveland, Ohio, what to do in the art gallery and what to do outside of it? He decided to make a billboard in protest of the stereotypical ‘Red-faced’ Indian used in Cleveland for its baseball team, this piece he called The American Leagues. And like the San Jose project, it too was protested and then was able to be shown with support from private donors. Again this project shows his careful consideration of the context of the text he uses and the particular history of each site.

Heap of Birds also presented his Neuf paintings. These colorful abstract forms were made to accompany text panels in a diptych that would show the "balance of a literal thing and an abstract thing." He claims that these images are not coded, and the language/ words made from similar "brushstrokes" are shown not in a clear language.

His art-making process and what he would like to offer were summed up in the last piece that he showed of a festival in which he collaborated with Aboriginal artists in Australia. In this piece he used three Cheyenne words and one English word, which said Learn Share Good True. In this piece, he wanted to express the intentions and thoughts surrounding the festival, To come and learn and to share and to make good things. His perspective on making art is to make an offering. He claims that one shouldn’t make art to make a living or do something business wise. For Edgar Heap of Birds, he would like to give something, to learn something and do it in the spirit in which we try to continue our work as artists.



Analysis by Stephen Chalmers



From a 1992 artist’s statement, Heap of Birds stated his desire to break free from the barriers imposed by the Euro-American formal and conceptual concerns. The work of Hichavi Edgar Heap of Birds takes on four different sub-projects. One of these projects is ‘large celebratory contrast paintings,’ another involves markers on large rag paper, the third project involves public art collaborations, and the last is of his critical writings. During his talk at the National Graduate Seminar, he only presented the first three. I will discuss these briefly in turn.

In the ‘joyous and celebratory’ acrylic paintings, he states that his inspiration is an abstraction of fish from the Great Barrier Reef intermingled with shapes from grasslands. They are very similar in color, form, and inspiration to the oil paintings of the Synchronists --particularly the works of Morgan Russell, MacDonald-Wright, and Patrick Henry Bruce from the 1910s. Like these painters, Heap of Birds stresses harmony and color rhythms in an abstraction from the subject itself, using colors to make the illusion of space and depth.

The project involving markers on rag paper is an interesting project for the mix of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art aesthetic. The ‘high’ is the 6' x 9' sheets of rag paper. The ‘low,’ the rough handling resulting in crinkling and tearing of this paper, the use of markers in a graffiti-like fashion and the use of seemingly random words such as MONETISH and WANT THAT TORQUE STEER. Heap of Birds approaches these pages without a pre-conceived plan, using instead a sort of instinct.

The third project that Heap of Birds presented --his use of site-specific confrontational plaques-- was by far his most successful project. One such piece is a billboard questioning the use of the smiling red-faced Indian logo by the Cleveland Indians. Another is an installation of two plaques outside the Wadsworth Athenaeum remembering the Pequot massacre of 1637 using text such as Thus was God crushing his proud enemies, burning them up in fire, dunning the ground with their flesh. It is marvelous in our eyes! from the journals of two of the American colony patriots.

Perhaps the most impressive was an installation in Minnesota of forty panels which stretch four hundred feet along the Mississippi River. Honoring Native Americans killed in the largest mass execution in US History, this installation gracefully reflects the curve of the river at the place it stood. Its sheer size and factual presentation of the names of the dead in their indigenous language along with the English translation is very striking. The presentation of his installations, mimicking the traditions of street signs and historical markers is the key to their success, functioning better than most public ‘art’ pieces which typically use the conventions of the art world to convey their point.